Mash The Gas: Watkins Glen

AJ Allmendinger won last years Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen to capture a spot in the Chase. [Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images]

AJ Allmendinger won last years Cheez-It 355 at Watkins Glen to capture a spot in the Chase. [Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its final stop at a road course this weekend as Watkins Glen International hosts the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen.

Cheez-It 355 at The Glen
Watkins Glen International
220.5 miles (90 laps)
Sunday, Aug. 9 2pm ET
NBCSN, 1:30pm ET
MRN, SiriusXM Ch. 90

This weekend’s event at Watkins Glen will be much different than the earlier road course race held in Sonoma, California as the course at the Glen is much faster. While the Sonoma circuit is very technical, Watkins Glen is all about speed as the straightaways that connect the left and right turns are much longer and faster.

The Cheez-It 355 at the Glen also presents a golden opportunity for some of the teams down in the point standings to grab a Chase spot as the strategy involved in the road course race helps make it very unpredictable. Last year A.J. Allmendinger drove the small #47 team into the Chase with a win here and we could very well see a similar surprise situation on Sunday.

Here are some drivers and storylines to watch as the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series turns left and right for the final time this season at Watkins Glen International…

Kyle Busch (Dan Margetta)
Kyle Busch fell half a lap short of scoring his fourth consecutive victory on Sunday and he’s no stranger when it comes to road course racing. Busch won the earlier road race event at Sonoma and he has won twice at Watkins Glen. Busch also holds eight top ten finishes in his ten starts here and he enters the weekend as a 6-1 favorite. The Joe Gibbs Racing stable is currently the top performing organization on the circuit and Busch is their best road race driver. He’s now just 13 points out of being Chase eligible and will be looking to make up the ground lost by running out of fuel at Pocono. Kyle Busch is still on a mission this season and he should be one of the drivers to beat on Sunday in the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen.

Jeff Gordon (John Wiedemann)
Jeff Gordon dominated Watkins Glen, but that was 15 years ago. Gordon won three years in a row from 1997-1999 and then again in 2001. That last win was the last time a Hendrick Motorsports driver has won at the track. Gordon is probably set to make the Chase as long as he maintains his pace. But, the realistic probability that Kyle Busch makes it into the top 30 as well as the possibility that a driver deeper in the point standings picks up a win this weekend could make his position a little tenuous. If Gordon can make that road course magic reappear and pick up a victory, he could solidify a spot in the Chase. Even a solid finish would help. There just can not be any DNF’s or 30th place finishes in Gordon’s future.

A.J. Allmendinger (DM)
Last year, A.J. Allmendinger won this race and captured a Chase spot for the lesser funded #47 team. This season, Allmendinger is in familiar territory and enters Watkins Glen in a do or die situation, in dire need of a victory to make the Chase. Watkins Glen is the perfect location for Allmendinger to make that charge as he is one of the top road racers in the garage and stands out from the crowd during the two road course stops on the circuit. He enters this weekend with favorable 6-1 odds and his record at the Glen includes two top five finishes and four top tens to go along with last year’s victory. A.J. Allmendinger has had this race circled on his calendar for months and he knows he needs to win to guarantee himself a spot in the Chase. Watch out for him on Sunday.

Carl Edwards (JW)
With the third best average finish at Watkins Glen, Carl Edwards is in the mix for the win this weekend and he is my pick. Joe Gibbs Racing is tied with Hendrick Motorsports with six victories at the road course and JGR has also won five of the last six races in this years’ schedule. Edwards has yet to win at Watkins Glen but he is an excellent road racer and this just might be his weekend. Edwards is 16th in the point standings, but his victory in the Coca-Cola 600 has him positioned 10th in the Chase Grid and just about locked in with five races to go. A victory this weekend would jump him up to about sixth and lock him in the Chase. With three top ten finishes in his last four races, Edwards just may be setting up a title run. He’s my pick to win and a guy to keep an eye on this weekend.

Brad Keselowski (DM)
Brad Keselowski’s name doesn’t immediately rise to the top of many people’s lists when it comes to road course racers, but his track record at the Glen isn’t anything to scoff at. While still seeking his first win here, he did string together three consecutive second place finishes a few years ago. He enters this weekend at 8-1 odds and lately his teammate Joey Logano has been stealing the Penske team’s thunder. The Glen’s speedy nature should suit Keselowski’s driving style and this could be the weekend the #2 team and Brad Keselowski remind everyone they’re still a major championship contender. Look for Brad Keselowski to be near the front of the field on Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr. (JW)
The recent races have not been going the way the races were earlier in the season for Martin Truex, Jr. But, if you can look past last weekends’ fuel issues and see what might have been, it is possible to see that the Truex from earlier in the season is back. And that means another top five for Truex this weekend. Well, maybe that is a little over the top but this should be a solid top ten weekend for the 78 team. A new sponsor, DraftKings, will hop on board this weekend and there is no better time than now for Truex to put the 78 car up at the front of the pack. In nine races at Watkins Glen, Truex has an average finish of 12.4. Add that to the career year that Truex is having and I’m sure he will be in the mix this weekend.

Sam Hornish Jr. (DM)
Sam Hornish Jr. is my long shot pick this week as he enters the race at 30-1 odds. Hornish drives for the same #9 team that won here twice with Marcos Ambrose and he does hold a respectable road course background. Hornish was fifth in his last Cup start at Watkins Glen in 2012 and he finished second and third in two Xfinity Series races here. The last time he raced at Watkins Glen in an Indycar he finished second as well. He also scored a top ten finish in the other road course race this year at Sonoma. If you are looking for surprise winner on Sunday, Sam Hornish Jr. could very well be it.

Kevin Harvick (JW)
While not a longshot, Kevin Harvick is a tough pick this weekend. Even though he has great stats (1 win, 2 top 5 and 7 top 10 finishes in 14 races), it is hard to determine what mode the series leader is in. There are no road courses in the Chase so this is not a test session. The only thing that Harvick needs is wins, so he could be in a checkers or wreckers mode. If you are picking him for your fantasy team, beware, he could make you very happy or very sad – like he did last weekend. A better pick just may be any one of his teammates.

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